Age of Empires Preview

Microsoft takes a stab at the golden age of wargaming

Combine the historic and strategic elements of Civilization with the real-time decision making and animations of Warcraft and Command and Conquer, and you have an idea of what to expect in Age of Empires.

"We've played all three and are building on their strengths and avoiding their weaknesses," says lead designer Bruce Shelley. "We're trying to raise the bar and be better than them."

If anyone can do that, Shelley and his three new business partners stand an excellent chance. Shelley is an old-timer in this new business. He co-designed Civilization with Sid Meier and worked for six years at Avalon Hill creating board games.

Twenty years ago, he met two of his new partners at a Virginia game club. He was a grad student; they were in high school. Over the years Shelley lost touch with them, but they kept on eye on his career by watching for his games. When Shelley's wife got an "excellent" job in Chicago and he left Microprose to move there with her, his game club buddies contacted him with a proposal.

By then they had created a very successful business software firm in Dallas and had become close friends with a software management consultant in Boston who had MIT and Harvard as clients. But games were still their passion, and they wanted Shelley to join them in a self-funded, $2 million, Dallas-based game start-up called Ensemble Studios. Shelley wouldn't even have to leave Chicago. That was two years ago. Now, after much telecommuting and frequent flyer mileage, they are deep into development of what may be a genre buster.

The best way to describe Age of Empires is to compare it to what Shelley considers to be its top rivals and models: Civ, C&C, and Warcraft.

Like Civ, it has a historic foundation, in this case spanning 10,000 years beginning at the dawn of civilization and running through about 1,000 AD. You select one of 12 cultures, from ancient China to Assyria, each with strengths and weaknesses. Like Civilization, you build a city, gain technology, amass armed forces, exploit resources, explore, and trade. Unlike Civilization, you build only one city and you do not have access to all technologies. You have to select carefully to fit your culture's attributes.

Like C&C and Warcraft, your human or computer AI opponents are doing the same thing in real/accelerated time, as opposed to Civ's turn-based approach. In early stages, hundreds of years can tick off in a few seconds. That rate drops as the game moves toward the bronze and iron ages. Unlike C&C and Warcraft, there will be several possible victory conditions: dominance through enemy conquest; economic strength through trade, extortion, and exploitation of natural resources; and exploration and discovery.

Shelley and Ensemble Studios think Empires will up the ante in the multiplayer niche. "Guys who like to build armies and go to war are going to have fun," says Shelley. "Our eight-player games are pretty much one- to two-hour slugfests."

But Age of Empires will offer those players a bit more. As experienced Warcraft and C&C players know, not a lot of thinking goes on in early stages of each new game. Experience teaches them what units to deploy and what buildings to create. That's not the case in Civ, since the map and other conditions are variable. And Age of Empires will take that further, starting each game with even more randomness so "players will have to take off in different directions," says Shelley. In addition, Age of Empires will offer a full array of solo-player scenarios.

Finally, in Shelley's view, Age of Empires will dramatically improve on what he believes is Warcraft's and C&C's biggest weakness: single-player, random-generated games. "I personally cannot play Warcraft in its solitaire mode. I get creamed and I think most everyone gets creamed," he says. "They left the single-player game as an afterthought. Multiplayer is very hot right now, but I wonder what percentage of the gaming public plays multiplayer online games. I think it's very premature to ignore the single player." That's why, he says, Empires will have excellent, lengthy solitaire games which you can play over and over on randomly generated maps and situations.

Shelley, his partners, and 16 programmers and artists have come up with some stunning graphics and a flexible game engine. The colorful 2-D, isometric, top-down view is finely detailed, and the 3-D characters are all animated using 3D Studio. The engine allows players to create custom scenarios and maps.

A lot rides on the release of Age of Empires. Microsoft was one of four major companies negotiating with Ensemble Studios to publish it. It has the potential to appeal to both hard-core strategy players and new initiates. To achieve that goal, Ensemble must walk a fine line. "Attempting to please too many people may be a problem," Shelley admits. "That's something I hope play testing will reveal. We've got to make sure the game is fun and everybody is enjoying themselves."

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